NOTTINGHAM, Great Britain - She ended her week in Nottingham a year ago with a victory over a British player, and Donna Vekic dashed home hopes once again to open her title defense at the Nature Valley Open.
The No.6 seed defeated wildcard Gabriella Taylor, 7-5, 5-7, 7-6(3) in the first round on Tuesday, kicking off her grass court season with a victory at the site of her second career title.
Vekic defeated Johanna Konta in last year's final to raise her first WTA trophy in three years, and the World No.42 needed two hours and 56 minutes to battle past the 20-year-old World No.168 on Court 1.
After failing to serve out the match each in the second and third sets, Vekic won the final seven points of the match - rallying from a double mini-break down at 0-3 in the tiebreak.
"That was a tough match - I knew she was going to play well because she's already had a few matches on grass," Vekic said.
"It was my first match so I was struggling a little bit to find some rhythm, but I think winning 7-6 in the third is very good for my confidence."
Leading 5-1 in the opener and seemingly headed for a routine afternoon against a play ranked over 100 places below her, Vekic nearly succumbed to a fierce rally by the British No.5 in the opening set.
Taylor saved a total of five set points as the Croatian No.1 served for the set twice, including breaking from 40-0 down to level the opener at 5-5, but ultimately was not able to hang on to serve as she looked to take her first lead since she held to begin the match.
The 20-year-old dropped serve for a third time to give Vekic her third chance to seve out the first set, and the defending champion made no mistake with her extra life as she secured the set to love.
Vekic trailed for much of the second set as the wildcard continued to put pressure on by holding serve, and eventually fell behind by a break in the sixth game. The defending champion seemed on course for a straight-set victory, however, as she pocketed the next three games in short order to step to the line and serve for the match.
However, Taylor would not be denied, as she buckled down to break serve - never allowing Vekic to get to match point - and ran off three games of her own to send the match to a final set.
The Brit's run of games stretched to five straight as she held and broke again to begin the decider, but the two players traded breaks a total of three times in the final set as it wound through to a tiebreak.
For a fourth time in five opportunities in the match, Vekic was unsuccessful in serving out a set, as Taylor broke to stay alive with the match on the line for a second time.
Herself serving to stay in the match, Vekic put together one of her finest games to hold at love - featuring a pair of aces, two of 11 she hit in the match - to send the match to its dramatic conclusion.
Vekic will next face rising Belarusian Vera Lapko, who defeated Jana Fett on Monday, 7-6(5), 6-4.